IOWA CITY — Call it what you will, there will be no shortage of opportunities and no shortage of challenges for Iowa wrestlers at the Big Ten Championships.
The two-day tournament at Minnesota’s Williams Arena begins at 10 a.m. today, and beyond being a qualifier for the NCAA Championships later this month in Pittsburgh, it will give the Hawkeyes their first look this season at the three teams that finished in front of Iowa at last year’s conference tourney.
Quirks in the Big Ten scheduling process left the Hawkeyes without duals against Penn State, Ohio State and Michigan this season, all ranked this week among the top six teams in the nation and all with wrestlers who will battle the third-ranked Hawkeyes.
"We’re excited to see them. We would be excited to see them again and again and again," Iowa coach Tom Brands said. "It’s that time of year. But this is the next thing, but our guys know it’s more important. Things naturally ramp up, which it does for everybody this time of year."
That includes 285-pounder Sam Stoll.
The fifth-place finisher at last year’s NCAA Championships carries an 8-3 record into the Big Ten tourney, the byproduct of a late start to the season and ongoing injury issues.
For the third time in four seasons, Stoll finds himself dealing with health problems. After undergoing a pair of knee surgeries, Stoll has eased his way back into competition after dealing with a leg injury that was the result of a gunshot wound last summer.
His short resume for this season includes losses in three of his last five matches, but Stoll is ready to put as much as he can into this weekend.
"I’ve never won a (Big Ten or NCAA) championship. That’s good motivation, something to fight for, right there," Stoll said. "I’ve only got a few weeks left here, and I need to go out and be at my best. I know what’s at stake."
Brands appreciates the adversity Stoll has dealt with throughout his career.
"He is a tough, tough man, a man’s man, and there’s nothing wrong with that," Brands said. "He’s grown a lot, dealt with a lot. But, he’s like the Energizer bunny, just keeps on going — boom, boom, boom."
Stoll’s record leaves him with a pre-seed of eighth in a deep 285-pound weight class. Nine Big Ten wrestlers are ranked among the top-15 in the country at the weight, and the conference has only seven assured berths at 285 for the NCAA Championships.
With his seed, Stoll could wind up facing top-ranked Gable Steveson of Minnesota, a true freshman with a 27-0 record, in the quarterfinals.
The pair did not wrestle in Iowa’s dual win over the Golden Gophers, and Steveson will be one of a multitude of challenges — or opportunities — that await Stoll this weekend in his home state.
"I’m not really thinking much about going home or anything like that. This meet could be in the middle of nowhere and I’d be ready to go," the Kasson, Minnesota, native said. "This is my last shot. I need to make the most of it."
Brands knows he is capable and senses that Stoll is aware that the clock is running.
"I think he realizes that he’s a fifth-year senior, just like (10th-seeded 174-pounder) Mitch Bowman, and there’s no recourse here," Brands said. "This is it. I think Stoll probably realizes that more than he would probably like to let on, but that’s the reality of the moment."
He’s not alone.
Given the strength of the Big Ten, Brands said his team must wrestle at its best this weekend.
"That’s not putting any pressure on anybody," he said. "That’s just what you do when you’re a competitor."